The bowl season couldn’t have gone much worse for the Pac-12. Well...Utah could have lost to West Virginia, but everything else went completely wrong. USC struggled to do almost anything against Ohio State, Washington’s late rally fell short against Penn State, Stanford gave up a comeback to TCU, Washington State got embarrassed by Michigan State, Oregon embarrassed by Boise State, both Arizona schools lost, and UCLA disappeared in the desert. The conference got exposed in the bowl season and confirmed that 2017 was a disaster for the conference.
So instead of a closing The Good, The Bad & The Unknown. I want to wrap up the season by looking at what happened, and what the conference needs to do to step its game up again.
Parity is here to stay - Those who wished for the days when Oregon and Stanford came back to Earth got their wish, but what we got instead are a couple of clusters of good, but not great and above average teams whom can beat each other any given week, are thin in depth and who can’t compete nationally on an elite level.
This really showed itself in how scheduling, bye weeks, home field advantage and health dictated who won many of the games this season. We tried to blame Larry Scott and scheduling, but the bigger problem was their wasn’t a team or two good enough to overcome just a couple of disadvantages.
How the parity happened and whether it is a good or a bad thing are two completely other stories, the bottom line is the margin between teams 1-11 and every space in between was razor thin in the conference this year.
Injuries - Every conference deals with injuries, but it feels like the Pac-12, especially at the top had a really tough time with it this year. USC and Washington dropped games in the regular season after losing multiple key pieces and every other program down the line seemed to be hamstrung. Is playing nine conference games contributing to the conference suffering from a large amount of injuries?
Overrated/Underrated - The Pac-12 was overrated going into bowl games and the Big Ten was underrated and it ended up being a disaster for the Pac-12. Ohio State and Penn State were two Playoff-caliber teams and neither USC or Washington were. USC earned their spot in the NY6 bowls, but Washington sliding in probably ended up hurting the conference as every team down the line ended up over-seeded. Drop Washington into the Alamo Bowl, Stanford into the Holiday Bowl and all down the line and the results are probably at least a little bit better.
The same could be said for the Big Ten, as getting Ohio State into the Playoff would have presented better match-ups against the Big Ten for the Pac-12 all down the line.
What Needs to Happen to Improve?
Recognize the issue - There’s no hiding from the Pac-12’s bowl record. The conference needs to step up on a national level. The problem? It’s mostly up to the individual programs to find a way to get better. The Pac-12 can’t retroactively make USC not make bad hire after bad hire or give Washington offensive guards. What the conference can do though is do the conference any favors it can in scheduling in-conference and maybe even consider going to eight games.
USC needs to step up - The conference needs at least 1-2 elite teams and barring the miraculous turn of about 50 events that allowed programs like Oregon and Stanford to momentarily become elite, USC is the only program that can really be consistently elite in the conference. The first step is USC stepping up their recruiting. USC still easily recruits at the top of the Pac-12 every year, but they are lagging behind the Alabama, Clemsons and Ohio States of the world and it shows in their depth. The Trojans need to start stacking five stars on five stars if they are going to be the program they want to be that can compete with the other blue bloods in college football.
A secondary power or two needs to rise - The pool of candidates just below USC who could become elite are Oregon, Stanford and Washington. All are doing just fine right now (especially SU and UW), but are not where they can trade elite blows nationally the way Oregon and Stanford could a few years ago. At least one of these programs needs to make it happen. Washington is the most-likely candidate as they are already almost there, but an elite quarterback and a few positions short of probably truly arriving. The Ducks have the foundation now, but need a true answer at coach and more talent in both fronts and Stanford needs to glue it all together they way they did in the late-Harbaugh/early-Shaw years.
Stanford needs to step up or go away - Stanford is still a very good program, don’t get me wrong, but their current status as a program that plucks recruits away from the conference’s other top teams and is always good enough to beat Playoff contenders at the worst team, but never quite good enough to not lose 2-4 games a year isn’t helpful for the conference as a whole. If Stanford can find a way to get back to where they were a few years ago and fly the conference flag - great, but if they stay where they are now as a Northwestern/Vanderbilt/Duke that somehow became a power, it’s not really doing much for the conference.
Chip Kelly or Herm Edwards needs to be a big success - One of the conference’s frustrating underachievers (Arizona State/UCLA) needs to have their big gamble coaching hire pay off. Both of these programs have the potential to put together elite runs, but just never do it. It would be huge for the conference if one of them could turn into an Auburn, a Georgia, Wisconsin, or Miami that they could be.